In June 2016, the Secretary-General of the OAS, Mr. Luis Almagro blamed President Nicolas Maduro’s government for the crisis in Venezuela. He described the country before the OAS Council as one mired in poverty, bad governance, corruption and violence. Most of the member states of the OAS voted in favor of Almagro presenting his report on Venezuela to the OAS council. However, there was strong opposition from some member states like Dominica. Mr. Almagro actively called on member states of the OAS to support calls by the people of Venezuelan for a referendum to recall President Maduro, who they accused of rigging general elections. President Maduro was branded as a “dictator” for stifling the Venezuelan opposition and violating the Constitution and laws of Venezuela, in the same way that Prime Minister Skerrit seems to be modelling his leadership in Dominica.
PM Skerrit has been hostile against traditional democratic principles and institutions in Dominica. Over the last 10 years or so, he has increasingly embraced a more dictatorial-socialist style of governance to maintain political power, in the process violating the provisions of our constitution and the democratic way of life of our people. As a close comrade of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, PM Skerrit’s enmity for the principles of democracy, and for individuals or Organizations that promote democracy has been evident. It was no surprise, therefore, when the PM launched a vicious attack on the OAS after the Foreign Minister of Venezuelan accused the OAS of trying to overthrow the Maduro administration because the OAS gave support to the massive Opposition protests that erupted in Venezuela over unfair parliamentary elections, allegations of corruption and the declining economic situation.
PM Skerrit voiced concern that the OAS has been seeking to undermine the government of Venezuela. He vowed then to stand up for Venezuela and to engage “anybody, institution or country that would seek to destabilize the government of Venezuela.” To PM Skerrit, despite the massive opposition protests, the government of Venezuela has been properly elected, and the country is “no less democratic than any other country in the Western Hemisphere.” He advised that elections in Venezuela have been free and fair. Therefore, the OAS and the international community should not seek “to dictate to people who they should elect as a government.”
Prime Minister Skerrit was unapologetically vocal in his call for the resignation or firing of the Secretary-General of the OAS in response to what he described as constant attacks on Venezuela and the unfair interferences in the domestic affairs of the country. The Prime Minister was vehemently opposed to what he considered to be impartiality on the part of the leadership of the OAS. He warned, “the OAS should not allow any Secretary-General to bypass his/her functions and assume a disrespectful position against a sovereign country.”
To a large extent, PM Skerrit echoed the views of the Foreign Minister and President of Venezuela who expressed similar concerns and planned countermeasure to what they saw as an attempt by the OAS and the more conservative regional governments to topple the Maduro administration, amidst a crippling economic crisis that has led to significant inflation specifically high food and fuel prices, a lack of basic goods, and social unrest involving the shooting of anti-government protesters by riot police.
When the vote was taken at the OAS on the US resolution on the situation in Venezuela, PM Skerrit of Dominica was among three CARICOM leaders who ordered their ambassadors to the OAS to vote against it. The resolution included a call for President Maduro to reconsider rewriting the Venezuelan constitution and a proposal for a ‘group of friends’ of the United States in the region to mediate the political crisis that engulfed Venezuela.
The then Foreign Affairs Minister of Dominica, Ms. Francine Baron represented Dominica at the OAS’s General Assembly. In her speech, she echoed the views of her Prime Minister stating that the OAS must be based on a principle of non-interference and respect for the sovereignty of member states, even though the same Dominican government later had no problem in inviting the RSS to Dominica on the eve of our last general elections to suppress and intimidate Dominicans who were fighting for needed electoral reform.
Following the unsuccessful resolution, SG Almagro offered to resign if Venezuela were to hold free, fair and transparent national elections without impediments and enacted constitutional and legal reforms to protect democracy. As a staunch ally of Venezuela, PM Skerrit continue to side with Venezuela and has adopted similar practices in Dominica, which includes relentless persecution of Opposition members and manipulation of our electoral system, having brazenly announced to the world that “No law, No Constitution” can prevent him from acting as he desires.
Following a meeting with Mr. Lennox Linton, the Leader of Opposition of Dominica and Mr. Crispin Gregoire, Former Ambassador to the United Nations on February 7, 2019, the Secretary-General of the OAS, reported that assistance of the OAS was being requested to ensure a level electoral playing field in Dominica. The Secretary-General expressed the view that the Dominican government has been tardy and/or reluctant to implement past recommendations of the OAS on electoral reform. The Skerrit-led Administration reportedly had an implementation rate of less than 10%, hence the concerns that the next general elections in Dominica would not be free and fair.
The SG issued a tweet informing the world, which appeared to have been too much to handle by our officials in Dominica and the region. The tweet read;
“Today, I met with Former Ambassador to the UN, Crispin Gregoire, who expressed his concern that the upcoming elections in Dominica are not free and fair. He also requested OAS official assistance to help ensure a level playing field in the country”
Immediately thereafter, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Dominica, Ms. Francine Baron wrote to the Secretary General of the OAS on behalf of the government of Dominica, demanding the immediate withdrawal of the tweet and an official apology. In her letter, Ms. Baron referred to the tweet as, “inaccurate, false and misleading.” The tweet remained with no apology offered.
First out of the block with support and public criticism of the OAS was the Chairman of CARICOM, Prime Minister of Skitts, Mr. Timothy Harris. He expressed deep concern about the actions and statements of the Secretary-General of the OAS, which were considered “outside of the bounds of his remit as the Head of an international Organization.” The release from CARICOM stated that the Tweet of the SG of the OAS was an implicit association with a suggestion that Dominica will not conduct free and fair upcoming elections and this was a clear manifestation of inappropriate behavior, especially as the statement was made without first consulting with the Government of Dominica. The CARICOM statement considered the tweet to be inference in the internal affairs of the country and called on the OAS Secretary-General to refrain from actions and statements, which it deemed to be beyond the competence of the Office and which affected the impartiality of the Organization. Of Course, the same PM Harris was among the Prime Ministers of the regions to send armed soldiers to intimidate and shoot the people of Dominica on the eve of the elections of 6 December 2019.
In response to all the above, in particular to the statement by CARICOM, the SG of the OAS highlighted that the tweet confirmed and communicated the concerns expressed by Ambassador Gregoire. He was surprised that he was being “denounced for being transparent and for not censoring ideas, particularly in an organization that is obliged to act in accordance with democratic principles such as freedom of speech, openness and tolerance for the diversity of political views.” The SG made reference to a study published by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and The University of Sydney, which confirmed that Dominica is the country with the lowest rate of implementation (below 10%) of the recommendations of OAS Electoral Observation Missions. He stated that “Democracy is a way of life and an ongoing process of continuous improvement and the recommendations of the Organization aim to guarantee voters the best possible electoral process. When they are not followed and not implemented, as in the case of Dominica, this does not help member states to increase the level of trust-from the opposition to the international community- in the electoral process. In that regard, he stood behind his statements and actions, which he considered to be “completely consistent with the competencies of the Office of Secretary General and the democratic principles that the OAS promotes and defends.”
Of course, Senior Counsel Astaphan, who is the spokesman for the government of Dominica and who has instructed and obstructed the work of the Commission over the years “to preserve the winning legacy” of PM Skerrit, could not stay out of the discussion. As expected, he was all over the local and regional media condemning the statements of the OAS Secretary General, which he described “as dishonest.” Per SC Astaphan, the Roosevelt Skerrit government has received numerous recommendations from other organizations including the Commonwealth and it is public knowledge that the Commonwealth has given technical assistance to the Electoral Commission. He argued that Dominica’s low implementation rate may be due to the different legal and historical traditions as well as the different levels of regulations within the society.
The fact remains, however, that the government of Dominica has to date failed to implement the recommendations of the OAS for electoral reform in Dominica and is today paying Sir Byron $113,000.00 per month for a four-month, no bid consultancy in violation of our national Public Procurement laws to review the very recommendations of the OAS Observers in the absence of a constitutionally constituted Electoral Commission.
In the next issue of this series, we shall examine the 2014 and 2019 OAS recommendations on electoral reform in Dominica.